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Renewables vs nuclear: Ruling calls for greater scrutiny

May 04 2017 05:00
Rob Jeffrey*

THE recent Western Cape High Court ruling by Judge Lee Bozalek was not an attack on nuclear energy or any other energy source as some media sources have implied. Nowhere did it mention anything about technologies, costs or environmental matters. It was purely a finding regarding the prescribed legal processes that must be followed.  

READ: Kemm: Court ruling didn't kill off SA’s nuclear plan

The judgment states that “any large-scale procurement process undertaken by the state or its agencies must comply with Section 217 of the Constitution”.  Furthermore, “the electricity produced by such new generation capacity should be procured through a tendering procedure with the aforementioned attributes although the procedure was not specified”.  

This must be done in such a way that the best value for the money spent is obtained. In the case of public procurement, the interests of government, the public and private enterprise are at stake, considering the economy and socio-economic situation of the country. 

READ: FULL JUDGMENT: Nuclear process declared unlawful

Principles identified by Professor Stephen de la Harpe of North West University about the primary objective of public procurement include: economy; competitiveness; effectiveness; transparency; the combating of abuse; the avoidance of risk; accountability; fairness and equitability; and integrity. These principles are relevant through all the stages of public procurement.  

Hopefully the judgment will help prevent fraud and corruption being part of the bidding and tendering process. This is as it should and must be for the correct decision to be made. Unfortunately, all technologies - whether they be nuclear, coal, gas or renewables - are probably subject to corruption to a greater or lesser degree.  

The ruling however potentially gives the country a brief respite to honestly and openly review all large-scale procurement programmes involving technologies that must or could potentially be used in the energy mix going forward. It should be remembered that this involves technology choices that will last for 40 to 60 years.

The technologies that should be subject to the greatest public and technical scrutiny are those that stray away from the technologies that are proven to give this and other countries security of supply at the lowest possible cost.  

'Examine all energy technology' 

The technologies that have been proven to reliably do this in this country and elsewhere are primarily coal, nuclear, gas and hydro. Large build programmes, involving new unproven and untested technologies, including many renewable technologies and particularly wind, need to be subject to far greater and vigorous scrutiny than those proven technologies already operating for many years in this and other countries.  

It behoves public research institutions in the country to examine all technologies on an equal footing and put forward their findings after making a thorough investigation of the technologies involved. This could involve a comparative analysis of the technical economic, environmental and socioeconomic implications and impact of the alternative technologies available. Contrary to some media reports, it is not up to the public to finally determine such decisions.  

A public enquiry allows various interest groups to put their case before the true decision makers. It is up to the technical, economic, social, environmental and political experts to assist the responsible persons and government decision-makers to come to a final decision. Input from outside experts, including those with alternative or contrarian views, also need to be heard.  

READ: Eskom sets record straight on renewable energy 

After all, Einstein and Galileo were once ousted by the community for having views that were considered dangerous and out of step with current ideological consensus thinking.

South Africa has a well-respected research institution that is well capable of evaluating all the key technologies involved. That institution is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which Wikipedia states is “South Africa's central and premier scientific research and development organisation”.  

Such an institution should be at the forefront of this kind of comparative analysis. It is therefore not surprising that Eskom would possibly approach this institution and/or other research institutions to investigate thoroughly all technologies. It is not up to these institutions to determine final decisions and make final choices regarding technologies, but only to make balanced recommendations.

These recommendations should be made only after a thorough examination of all technologies in terms of Section 217 of the Constitution. These views should be well balanced and considered.   

Opposition to wind and renewables 'potentially muzzled'

Concern was expressed in a published article the other day that institutions are potentially being muzzled. It is a known fact that the Energy Centre of the CSIR has been putting out a very one-sided view strongly favouring wind. This view, not surprisingly, has powerful support and backing from vested foreign and domestic technical, financial and idealistic interests that have much to lose from any alternatives.  

The facts are that it is the alternative or contrarian views to the renewable lobby that are being muzzled. The authors of these alternative and contrarian views are often subject to personal abuse and victimisation. This is not the way the scientific method should take place. Nor is it the way serious discussion and decision-making should proceed.

Unfortunately, at this stage it is quite apparent that so-called leading research and university research institutions are openly punting the wind and renewables option on a continuous, almost day to day, basis without comparing their findings rationally and fairly with the benefits and otherwise of other technologies. 
 
The situation facing South Africa is that nuclear and coal have proven track records of success, reliability and supplying electricity at low cost. Future versions of both technologies are safer and far cleaner than in the past. On the other hand, wind has a track record of high risk, high prices, unpredictability and unreliability.

The real-life examples show costs of supply far exceeding their theoretical costs and in every case when implemented in practice, large-scale wind has led to substantially higher electricity prices and unreliable supply. It is time for the discussion to move away from the simplistic and naïve levelised cost of electricity approach currently being used to assessed energy mixes to start using an approach which considers increasing risk with increasing unreliability.  

Recent events have led to an increased volume of technical papers dealing with the increasing risk and economic cost that wind and renewables bring. Such papers include the recent papers by BP Heard assessing the CSIR recommendation in his paper “The hidden costs of high penetration renewables”.  

BP Heard et al have written a paper entitled “Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems”. This is a comprehensive evaluation of the risks associated with non-dispatchable electricity energy sources.  

Not surprisingly, the new administration in the USA has in the last few days called for a full investigation of these matters and the implications it has on electricity supply and stability of their grid operations. The investigation must consider the high risk, the full back-up necessary and the huge environmental land footprints that are involved.  

READ: The hidden costs of renewable energy projects 

It is imperative to look at the proposal for introducing massive wind and renewables as a major technological change. Decisions now will have a 40- to 60-year impact with huge cost and detrimental environmental impacts. Wind has a low energy density and high unreliability. Apart from full back-up being required from reliable energy sources, windfarms take up enormous land areas directly.  

Wind farms kill massive numbers of birds and bats

The footprint however is far larger than the windfarms themselves as extensive surrounding land areas are also being seriously affected. The enormous grid increase required by this technology needs also to be considered. Research overseas and in South Africa has established that windfarms kill bird and bat life in massive numbers, has a harmful health impact on human beings and animals and their other damaging environmental and ecological impacts.  

Their full impact over time will mean that windfarms and their associated grid will blight more than 100 000 square kilometres of South Africa’s landscape, generally in environmentally sensitive and beautiful areas. In time these will undoubtedly become known as the killing fields of Africa.  

The vested foreign and domestic individuals representing the financial, technical and idealistic interest responsible for this tragedy will have long gone. It is our descendants that will be left with a permanently damaged environment and scarred landscape. It is surprising that more environmental groups have not raised their voices above the parapet in unison to prevent the looming ecological and environmental calamity.  

The full impact of the technological must be looked at as major technology change as a single unit over time, and reality should not be hidden by adopting a step by step approach and evaluating one windfarm at a time.  

That is just assisting a creeping catastrophe. It is time that this approach is reined in and a serious debate needs take place of the real benefits or otherwise of all the various technologies. The judgment of the court is important as it has pointed the way forward.  

It stated: “any largescale procurement process undertaken by the state or its agencies must comply with Section 217 of the Constitution”.  Based on this, there should be a moratorium on all windfarm development and build and an immediate postponement of all current windfarm build programmes until a full evaluation process has taken place.

'Don't delay baseload decision' 

Some people mistakenly believe that a considerable time can now be allowed to elapse before a decision is made. This again is far from the truth. People may think South Africa can delay a decision on major base-load energy sources until 2025 because at present there is a surplus of electricity supply. There are several matters that need to be considered.  

“If you want to complete power stations delivering base load power and have them come on stream by 2025, you have to have selected the supplier and placed the order within the next two years. Renewable energy is not capable of supplying base load power. This means preparing and putting out enquiries by the end of this calendar year in order to go through the full procurement process.” 

READ: SA adding 'too much electricity' to the grid - Brown 

South Africa needs additional electricity supply if it is to achieve the necessary gross domestic product growth above 4% per annum. South Africa will only have excess electricity if the country does not achieve higher growth rates. More than 16 million job seekers will enter the job market by 2030. If economic GDP growth averages less than 3% per annum, fewer than 6 million jobs will be created. This is nothing short of calamitous with profound economic social and political implications.  

Electricity is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for economic growth. Unfortunately, planning for low electricity growth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

If there are not major policy changes, South Africa will be heading for a Brazilian or Chavez Venezuelan-style terminal decline.  Currently, the economy is growing by less than 2% per annum. It is unlikely to rise beyond 2.8% per annum in the next four years.

The country requires a GDP growth of more than 4% per annum to make any inroads on unemployment. That will require positive investment encouraging policy changes and additional electricity, coming on stream from 2023 to 2030.

The public are generally not aware of the full implications of the decisions that are currently being made. It is time for South Africa to start baking the economic cake again and stop cutting it. These problems need to be urgently addressed.  

Energy, electricity and employment growth are the keys to South and southern Africa’s future economic, social and political prosperity, sustainability and stability. Only if this is achieved will South Africa generate genuine transformation and individual economic freedom. 

* Rob Jeffrey is an independent risk economist.

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opinion  |  nuclear energy  |  wind  |  sa economy  |  renewable energy

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